Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?

As Christianity overtook fourth-century Europe, church officials instituted Christmas to discourage people from celebrating rowdy pagan festivals, causing many pagan traditions to be assimilated into the holiday. For example, the practice of decorating trees dates back to ancient pagan civilizations who displayed evergreens indoors and worshipped them, but the practice was popularized as a Christmas tradition in 17th-century Germany.

Although the birth date of Christ was never verified in the Bible, Roman Catholic leaders agreed to establish the holiday on December 25. Early Christmas celebrations involved indulgent feasting, drinking and mischief-making carried over from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. During Saturnalia and many winter solstice festivals, the people celebrated a bountiful harvest by enjoying hedonistic pleasures and ignoring social hierarchies.

Christmas, originally named the Feast of the Nativity, gradually replaced Saturnalia, but the celebration focused more on merrymaking than honoring the birth of Christ. Mirroring the social aspects of Saturnalia, Christmas celebrants continued the pagan practice of taking food and drink from the wealthy and allowing the poor to indulge. The debauchery associated with Christmas led orthodox Puritans in England and North America to denounce the holiday as an evil, pagan celebration.

By the late 1800s, the holiday was slowly reintroduced into American society as a family celebration emphasizing kindheartedness and goodwill. Upper class Americans hoped to placate the restless under class and put an end to Christmas riots by promoting the holiday as a time of nostalgia and charity.